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A Taste for Honey
A Mycroft Holmes Mystery
By H. F. Heard
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1969 The Barrie Family Trust
All rights reserved.
THE SOLITARY FLY
Someone has said that the countryside is really as grim as any big city. Indeed, I read a novel not long ago that made out every village, however peaceful it looked, to be a little hell of all the seven deadly sins. I thought, myself, that this was rather nonsense — a "write-up" — devised by those authors who come to live out of town and, finding everything so dull, have to make out that there's no end of crime going on just behind every barn door and haystack. But in the last month or so, I'm bound to say I've had to change my mind. Perhaps I have been unfortunate. I don't know. I do know that many people would say that I had been fortunate in one thing: in meeting a very remarkable man. Though I can't help saying that I found him more than a little vain and fanciful and rather exhausting to be with, yet there is no doubt he is a sound fellow to have with one in a tight corner. Though, again, I must say that I think he is more to be valued then, than when things are normal and quiet. Indeed, as I shall show, I am not sure that he did not land me in one trouble in getting me out of another, and so, as I want to be quiet, I have felt compelled, perhaps a trifle discourteously, to refuse to go on with our acquaintanceship.
But I must also own that I did and do admire his skill, courage, and helpfulness. I needed such a striking exception to the ordinary (and very pleasant) indifference of most people, because of the quite unexpected and, I may say, horrible interest that one person suddenly chose to take in me. Yet, as I've said, perhaps I would never have known that I had become of such an awkward interest — the whole thing might have passed over without my ever having to be aware of my danger if this same well-meaning helper had not uncovered the pit past which I was unconcernedly strolling. And certainly the uncovering of it led me into great difficulties. I don't like being bothered. I like to think sufficiently well of my neighbors that I can feel sure they won't interfere with me, and I shan't have to do anything to them, and, perhaps I should add, for them. I must be frank, or putting all this down won't get me any further. I suppose — yes, there's no doubt — I came to live in the country because I wanted to be left alone, at peace. And now I have such a problem on my mind — on my conscience! Well, I must set it all down and then, maybe, it will look clearer. Perhaps I'll know what I ought to do. At the worst it can remain as a record after me, to show how little I was really to blame, how, in fact, the whole thing was forced on me.
As I've said, I came to live in the country because I like quiet. I can always entertain myself. When you are as fortunately endowed as that, mentally, and your economic endowment allows you to collect round you the things you need to enjoy yourself — well, then, persons are rather a nuisance. The country is your place and No CALLERS the motto over your door. And I would have been in that happy condition today if I had stuck to my motto. I'm a Jack-of-all-trades, a playboy, if you will. I potter in the garden, though I really hardly know one end of a flower from the other; amuse myself at my carpenter's bench and lathe; repair my grandfather clock when it ails; but fall down rather badly when it comes to dealing with the spring mechanism of the gramophone. I'm no writer, though. I write a neat hand, as I hate slovenliness. But I like playing at making things, not trying to describe them, still less imagining what other people might be thinking and doing.
I have some nice books with good pictures in them. I'm a little interested in architecture, painting, and, indeed, all the arts, and with these fine modern volumes you needn't go traveling all over the place, getting museum feet, art-gallery headache, and sight-seeing indigestion. You can enjoy the reproductions quite as much as the originals when you consider what the originals cost, just to look at, in fatigue and expense. I like turning over the colored plates and photographs of my books in the evening, looking sometimes at a cathedral and then, with only the exertion of turning the page, at the masterpiece of painting which the cathedral contains, but which the photographer was allowed to see in a good light and the visitor is not, and then at an inscription which is quite out of eyeshot of the poor tourist peer he binocularly never so neckbreakingly.
I read a novel now and then, but it must be a nice, easy story with a happy ending. I never wanted to marry; and certainly what I have to tell should be a warning. But I like — or liked, perhaps I should say — to think of people getting on. It made me, I suppose, feel they wouldn't trouble me if they were happy with each other. I suppose I liked life at second hand — reflected, not too real. And certainly, now that it has looked straight at me, I can't say I wasn't right, though I may have been irresponsible.
Well, I mustn't waste more time on myself, though perhaps in a record like this there should be some sort of picture of the man who tells the story and how he came to have to tell it. My name — I believe they always start by asking that — is Sydney Silchester. My age doesn't matter — though I suppose they'd pull that out, if they were once on the track of all this; though what difference it makes whether I'm thirty or fifty I can't see. "Of years of discretion," is the description that occurs to me and seems apt. For certainly I am not of years of indiscretion — never, as it happens, was. "Old for his years," they used to say; and now, I believe, young. But am I any longer — "of years of discretion?" Certainly had I been discreet I would somehow not have become involved in all this! But my mind goes round and round like a pet rat in his whirligig. That's because I can't write and also because I am really considerably worried, shocked, and perhaps frightened. Getting it all down, I must repeat, will help. Get it down, then, I will, and no more blundering about as though I were trying to keep something back from someone.
As I've said, it all began through my breaking my rule — the rule, as it happens, of all village life of the better-off, of "keeping myself to myself." It was an accident, in a way, or rather two accidents coming on the top of each other. I'm fond of honey and one of the pleasant things about living in the country is that you can get the real stuff. But what was a little odd in my neighborhood, though I never thought about it, was that practically no one kept bees — said they couldn't make them thrive. Now I wish that I hadn't been so fond of it. Somehow I was too lazy or too busy with other things to try beekeeping myself. That was certainly fortunate. Bees always seemed to me troublesome insects — but how troublesome I never suspected.
I'd found, however, that there was one place where bees were kept and honey for sale, a house toward the end of the village. I found it because it lay on the way to the open country and you needn't go through the main street and run the risk of being stopped and being compulsorily gossiped. I never set out to be a recluse — only just didn't want friends, hadn't time for them. The couple who lived up there seemed quite as uninclined to make a small business transaction into a bridgehead for talk leading to a call. That seemed to me to be a distinct additional find. They were a Mr. and Mrs. Heregrove. When I called for my monthly supply, sometimes I saw one, sometimes the other. It wasn't a very small place, but they, too, never seemed to entertain. For all I know, they ran the house, gardens, and paddock themselves. They may have had a servant the first few times I called. Certainly I never saw anyone but themselves about the place later. If I had wanted to make friends they were hardly the people I would have chosen. I hate untidiness.
I saw Mrs. Heregrove first — or, to be quite exact, heard her before I saw either her or her husband. She had an unpleasantly penetrating voice and she was using it with such effect that she herself was evidently quite unable to hear the rusty doorbell I was ringing. Eavesdropping has never appealed to me. Other people's affairs always appear quite dull enough when one has to be told them and is expected to sympathize. I keep what little patience I have for such occasions. So when for the third time the unpleasant voice had asked of what was clearly a tense and provocative silence, What he meant to do about it and whether he was going to live on her money until they both starved, as the question was certainly not for me to answer or to hear, I rapped sharply with my stick on the door. That brought immediate silence, and a few seconds later the voice's face was before me. They matched.
"Well?" she said, with sharp suspicion.
"I want to buy some of your honey," I said at once. I was amused at the quickness with which the face changed, and the voice, too.
"Certainly; I have it both in comb and in jars."
I lay in a month's supply at a time. I also always pay cash — hate bills. I told the woman I'd take half a dozen combs and six jars and took out my purse to pay. She altered even more rapidly. I couldn't help noticing that the face became so lit with relief as to become actually good-looking. She hurried indoors and I caught sight of a shabby hall. In a few minutes she was back with the combs and the jars.
"I could lend you a basket to carry it," she said, and brought a large wicker thing mended with string.
"Thanks," I quickly countered. "I'll bring it back when passing again."
I feared she might make the retrieving of the basket an excuse for a call; at the best a bore, at the worst a beg.
But she replied, "Please do, and perhaps you'll be needing more honey or could recommend mine to your friends."
That was our first meeting. I did bring back the basket and got a second supply, and, as one is a creature of habit, one took to going up there as a matter of course. I never heard them quarreling again.
Once while I waited I caught sight of Heregrove himself. He turned and looked at me. Didn't nod indeed, he appeared quite suspicious and unfriendly, although he must have seen me at the door plenty of times. I said nothing and he turned to go down the path, with his head bent, through the garden, which I noticed again was badly neglected. I watched him go out at the upper end and cross the paddock. There were some tumble-down stables shutting in that side of the field. I had been quite sure that the Heregroves didn't use them, but today I noticed that there was a horse in one of the stalls. Heregrove swung open the half door and disappeared inside. At that moment his wife came out to me with my order of honey. I remember distinctly turning over in my mind their having bought a horse. They had no trap, indeed, they were seldom seen outside their grounds. They clearly didn't like going into the village — owed bills, I suspected.
Then the tragedy happened. I was just running out of honey and was thinking of going up for more, in a day or two. The girl who cleans the house for me, who is a good worker and whose flowing tongue I had thought my icy silences had at last frozen up for a long winter of my content, began to trickle.
"Your honey nearly gone, sir."
I knew this was an opening. I plugged it unwisely with, "Well, I always order it myself, Alice."
"I know, sir." (I saw I had somehow opened the dam, not closed it.) "You always gets it at pore, dear Mrs. Heregrove's."
I recognized that "pore-dear" at once. It can only be used, like the Greek "beautiful and good," as a sort of Siamese-twin epithet; it means, of course, that the recipient is dead. I must have shown a flicker of interest or surprise. My enemy rose like a subarctic river in the spring.
"Not that the village c'd ever think much of either of them. Coming here and giving airs and then running bills and never paying. But, Lor, they was right out of heels, as you might say."
"I wouldn't," I interposed. "I don't want —"
But my wishes, commonly law, were now only the wishes of the living against the ancient right to proclaim the dead. The flow ran on.
"And that Heregrove: you could hardly call him 'mister' at the best. She was a lydy come down, but he — well, my dad said he never heard a fuller tongue, no, not in a barman. He'd spent all her money, they say, before the end. Why she'd ever 'a' married him no one ever could think, but parson was once heard to say that Heregrove had been a scholar of some sort and lydies are often queer-like, in that way — take a brain which can't even pay its way and let a figure go which c'd at least serve them —"
Alice saw that her tongue had got its head and was itself not only wandering but had reached the verge of "unlydylikeness." But with a magnificent pull she brought herself out of the tailspin, and before I could claim sanctuary of shocked bachelorhood, zoomed on. Mixed metaphors, I suppose — but an excited and talking woman seems to me to combine the characteristics of all the violent and rapid forces of nature and man. She zoomed into the vasty halls of death.
"Well, she's gone, and taken in the strangest way. Perhaps he'll feel it's a judgment on him, but none can say for sure. But we're all sorry now for her, pore dear lydy. Mrs. Brown, who has laid out 'undreds, you might say, and says she likes the doing of it, says it's a sweeter job any day than Miss Smith's, the monthly, for when we come we're all of a mess and go on giving trouble and needing to be changed, but when we go, we go quiet, don't mess our clothes, and can be laid so we look like statutes — Mrs. Brown says it was just a terrible sight, she — pore, dear Mrs. Heregrove — was that swollen and black. And she's right, for I asked Mrs. B. if I might have a look. Heregrove had taken himself off after calling and seeing Dr. Able —"
At that I did break in.
"Alice," I nearly shouted, "did Mrs. Heregrove die of something infectious? If so —" I said, drawing back and pulling out my handkerchief.
"Bless you, no, sir. She was as healthy as you nor me last night. She didn't die of a sickness. She died of a haccident, of stings. The bees got her. Though why, considering she'd been quite one of them for so long — but, then, you'd never know. My uncle —"
The main wave was past; the news was out. Only an ever-widening ripple of reminiscence would follow.
I turned to the garden door, saying over my shoulder, "When you have laid lunch you needn't wait," and myself waited for no more.
Still Mrs. Heregrove's strange end stuck in my mind, even though it wasn't infectious, and kept on passing through my thoughts as I occupied myself at various jobs. I've said I know little about bees but of course I knew they could, like most spinsters in crowds, become at moments temperamental and even neurotic. Perhaps that was one reason why I never had kept them. And now I would have to find another source of honey. Heregrove would have to destroy his lot. Even if he stayed on in the village he could hardly go on beekeeping. They'd be dangerous to him, no doubt, and hardly anyone would like honey manufactured by a homicidal horde. Probably even to call at the house would be to risk attack. I felt a strong distaste to being stung to death or going at all near where such a fate could possibly fly upon me.
The question was in my mind for some days, partly because at every meal I was reminded of it by seeing my honey stock run lower and partly because when I went to do shopping in the village I couldn't avoid hearing — like a sort of Handel chorus — the same phrases over and over again till I had the whole story. Ours is a compact little village, almost a townlet, so you can get most of the things you want and, indeed, quite a number I've no wish for. So I can do most of my shopping without having to send away for things. The story interlined my own business questions and answers.
"Dr. Able knew a case just like that before." "Dr. Able and the coroner talked it over in court." "Heregrove said the bees had been cross and quarrelsome with him lately and he'd told his wife."
"The coroner said it was a plain, sad case, an accident." "The coroner said the bees should be destroyed and Heregrove said he'd be doing that anyhow."
Well, that settled my concern, such as it was. I'd have to find another supply-source. That led to the second accident, my second honey hazard, which I now see was needed to bring the first, which I had already taken quite unconsciously, into play.
Excerpted from A Taste for Honey by H. F. Heard. Copyright © 1969 The Barrie Family Trust. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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